M.G. Vassanji’s The Book of Secrets (1994)

Have you read M.G. Vassanji yet? I chose this one as part of my glimpse into a pocket of Canlit missed in 1994 but I was really just looking for an excuse to read more of his work, which I had intended to do since I “discovered” his 2005 collection of short stories, When She Was Queen.

That’s when I was reading 2006’s nominees for the Toronto Book Award, proving that prize lists do garner new readership for particular authors, and yet I don’t know why the Toronto Book Award is the one that brought Vassanji into my bookbag because I’d certainly had enough encouragement from the Giller Prize.

He won the inaugural Giller in 1994 for this novel, in fact, and won the prize again in 2003 for The In-Between World of Vikram Lall. I remember being struck by his gentle manner and his generosity towards other nominees in the 2003 ceremony (1994’s was not broadcast on public television at the time) and I think that contributed to my eagerness to read this novel.

Although with a title such as The Book of Secrets, I really didn’t need that much encouragement, certainly not in addition to the book-within-a-book device that reliably wins this reader’s heart. But how to encourage another reader who isn’t so easily seduced by all these, relatively superficial reasons, to try this novel?

I don’t think a summary is the answer. This book reminds me of Nicolas Dickner’s Nikolski, Marina Warner’s The Leto Bundle, Lawrence Norfolk’s L’Emprière’s Dictionary, Timothy Findley’s Pilgrim: there are real personages (or at least real fictional versions), historical and contemporary landscapes, interwoven possibilities and plotlines, and reading books like these offers a multi-faceted experience that defy the urge to summarize.

Of his writing, M.G. Vassanji says: “To get an authentic sense of period for TGS [The Gunny Sack] I had to consult the journals and biographies of British colonial administrators and explorers, who were, for all their faults, wonderful recorders. TBOS [The Book of Secrets] is the story of the fate of one such journal written by a colonial administrator at the outset of the First World War as it arrived in East Africa.” Perhaps that’s as much of a summary as can be afforded.

In reading this novel, I was aware of the research the author must have done and also aware that I have very little overlapping reading experience of colonial Africa, but I didn’t feel that I needed it to negotiate the storyline. I did occasionally flip back to the Glossary, but more out of curiosity than necessity; I think the reader is so skillfully immersed in the story that you don’t need to know any more than is on the page to fully and completely engage with it and the characters that populate this absorbing, even mesmerizing, novel. It definitely left me wanting to read more of his work.

Have you sampled this writer’s work before, or are you tempted to sample it now?